Before he was famous and heroic, Pete Frates was just another handsome baseball player from Boston College, a kid from Beverly who had the best day of his ballplaying life at Fenway Park, hitting a home run and going 4 for 4 against Harvard to win the Baseball Beanpot tournament in April 2006.
Stricken with the scourge of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis in 2012, Pete would go on to global fame as an inspirational figure, kick-starting the Ice Bucket Challenge fund-raising campaign that may yet lead to a cure for the disease.
Pete lived with ALS for almost eight years, emerging as a hero to his family, friends, and all of America, but when I learned that he died, all I could think of was that day at Fenway when his future seemed infinite as he hoisted the winner’s trophy over his head.
“It was a curveball,’’ young Frates said after he’d been doused with Gatorade by his teammates. “I didn’t know if it had enough, and I wasn’t going to watch it. My folks were here and I gave them a little wave after I crossed home plate.
“This is a great feeling, especially for someone who’s from around here. I remember being 6 years old and coming to Fenway Park with my grandpa. I remember stopping at the Hilltop Steak House on the way.’’
A year later, back at Fenway for another Beanpot final, a television reporter asked me which college player would make for a tidy sound bite for the evening news.
That was easy, I told the reporter. Go talk to BC’s No. 3. He’s handsome, articulate, local, and he hit a big homer here last year. The kid has it all. He’ll be whatever he wants to be.
Pete Frates was the young man who had it all. Great parents. Middle of three children. A Catholic Conference All-Star and state champion at St. John’s Prep. He graduated from BC’s College of Arts and Sciences and was making his way in the world, still playing summer ball for the Lexington Blue Sox when he took a pitch off his wrist in the summer of 2011 and noticed that it was slow to heal.
He went for tests. Then more tests. Until the doctors ruled everything else out. In the spring of 2012, Pete was told he had ALS.
He never complained. He started fund-raising. His parents, John and Nancy, and his brother Andrew and sister Jennifer all put their lives on hold. They were Team Frate Train.
In that first winter, Pete was still able to have a few beers, despite his medication. Things were still pretty normal. But ALS is aggressive. Pretty soon he using a wheelchair and it was becoming harder to understand him.
“People think I’m drunk all the time now, because it’s harder to talk,’’ Pete told me at spring training in 2013. “I’m starting to slur my words.’’
Though his strength and speech were fading, that didn’t stop him from marrying Julie. Soon they had a little girl, Lucy. More reasons to fight the fight. More reasons to stay alive.
Inspired by the Facebook page of Pat Quinn, another ALS victim, Pete posted a video that changed everything in the summer of 2014 by encouraging others to take the Ice Bucket Challenge. Through his connections to BC and in the Boston sporting community, the video went global. Bill Gates, Oprah Winfrey, LeBron James, and Lady Gaga all did the Ice Bucket Challenge. Close to a quarter of a billion dollars was raised. And that was only the beginning.
There was a Pete Frates book. There was a movie deal. He was Sports Illustrated’s Inspiration of the Year. He was honored at the World Series and at the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y.
But ALS never stopped its attack. Pete underwent emergency tracheotomies and contracted pneumonia. He spent a lot of time at Salem Hospital and in ICU at Mass. General. It became almost impossible to travel. He could communicate only with his eyes.
Those eyes never lost the fire. And Pete never lost his perspective on things. A couple of years ago, when it was erroneously reported that he had died, Pete’s response was to tweet a video of himself accompanied by Pearl Jam’s “(I’m Still) Alive” (written by Eddie Vedder). Pete’s message to his Twitter followers was, “In the words of my friend Ed.”
That was Pete. The black-humor tweet raised even more money. Once again, Pete turned a negative into a positive.
“Pete was an inspiration to so many people around the world, who drew strength from his courage and resiliency,’’ read a statement issued by BC Monday. “A natural born leader and the ultimate teammate, Pete was a role model for all, especially young athletes who looked up to him for his bravery and unwavering positive spirit in the face of adversity.’’
On the day Pete Frates hit the homer into the visitors’ bullpen at Fenway, I wrote, “When you grow up a Red Sox fan in Beverly, Massachusetts, it doesn’t get much better than that. It’s probably the best day of your life.’’
No one knew what was ahead for Pete on that day. Marrying Julie and witnessing the miracle of a baby girl had to be the best days. And the satisfaction of waging war against ALS no doubt gave him purpose and joy.
But before he was a husband and a dad and a hero, Pete Frates was a ballplayer and a competitor.
He was a champion.
In every way.
More on Pete Frates
Dan Shaughnessy can be reached at email@example.com.